Feeding Wild Birds in America: Culture, Commerce, and Conservation (Texas A&M University Press, 2015), by Paul J Baicich, Margaret A. Barker, and Carrol L. Henderson discusses the changing relationship between backyard birds and humans. The chapters demonstrate how humans have developed with bird-feeding inventions, and also how Americans have come to value nature. This excerpt is from Chapter 4, “Seed and Feeder Businesses in the Roaring Twenties.”
One staple on bird-feeding menus from earliest accounts has been suet. But the suet of yore may or may not be the suet of today. Bird-feeding folks have come to call almost any kind of fat “suet.” It is also the term generally used for any fatty mixture or pudding one makes or purchases for birds. But not so long ago it specifically meant the hard, white fat on the kidneys or from the backbone and rib area of sheep, cattle, and other animals. Lard was the word for rendered pork fat. Schmaltz referred to a softer kind of fat found on ducks, chickens, and geese.
Suet is a true bird treat, one full of saturated fats (known as SFAs in dietary circles)—something we humans are supposed to avoid or at least consume only in moderation. But high-metabolism birds benefit from such fats, especially in winter, because they are full of heat-producing calories.
Feeder bird species have no doubt been dining on animal fat for as long as both they and the fatty animals have been around. In the wild, people have seen a variety of small non-vulture-type birds feasting on all sorts of carrion, including deer and skunk. Birdwatchers have reported seeing deer carcasses (e.g., in the Adirondacks) visited by Black-capped Chickadees, Boreal Chickadees, and Red-breasted Nuthatches. In Georgia, Dark-eyed Juncos have been seen eating bits of deer fat left on the ground at check stations where hunters weigh their deer.
From Elizabeth B. Davenport’s early bird-feeding records during the winter of 1895–96, we learn that she fed suet to the birds who visited her Vermont backyard. She observed that, “generally, those living largely upon the larvae of insects all take the suet.”
She offered simple fare, such as leftover items from the kitchen or barnyard: “I put split bones in which the marrow is accessible and other bones with some suet upon the apple tree boughs, and also nailed large pieces of suet upon perpendicular trunks.” Chickadees, nuthatches, and Downy Woodpeckers found them almost immediately.
In the 1970s, noted bird-feeding writer John Dennis advocated feeding cooking fats like bacon grease and meat drippings, but he deemed beef kidney suet the best. Plain chunks and strips of it could be had from meat departments at grocery stores. While it could be offered to birds as is, rendering would make it cleaner and longer lasting. In other words, the process would keep it from quickly going rancid.
The rendering and solidification practice actually goes back many decades, with the term “food stone” having been used to describe the finished product at least as early as the 1910s. Bird-feeding accounts from that time also referred to scattered bread crumbs soaked in melted suet.
The process for rendering suet at home developed over time. Generally, it would require heating small pieces of the fat in a pan of water on low temperature. Once melted, cooled, and separated, the contents could easily be fitted into suet holders (e.g., small aluminum pans, muffin molds, or even coconut shells) or made into any sort of suet mixture (with added fruits, nuts, seeds, etc.). Cookie cutters could also mold the formless fat into a wide range of creative shapes. Very small pieces could even be cut or ground and offered as suet worms in open dishes to those birds, such as bluebirds, that cannot easily use a typical suet feeder.
As for today’s store-bought suet cakes, they come in all kinds of sizes, flavors, and mixes. While typically they are twelve-ounce squares, designed to fit into uniform holders, some companies have super-sized their products, offering three-pound cakes and even larger suet blocks and logs. Novelty items like suet wreaths and suet pellets are for sale, as are the more common suet bells, all available through bird-feeding catalogs.
Already rendered, commercial suet can be plain or mixed with ingredients such as almonds, cashews, peanuts, millet, sunflower seeds, corn, raisins, blueberries, oranges, apples, cherries, and a range of dried insects, such as crickets, mealworms, and waxworms. Some are made with hot red pepper, said to ward off squirrels. There is even a line of vegetarian suets made from soybean oil. Suet doughs are soft and crumbly and often include peanut butter. No-melt suet is sold especially for summer feeding.
Whether the suet is plain, rendered, or mixed with goodies, plenty of uninvited guests like it, too. Massachusetts wildlife biologist Bradford Scudder suggested in his 1916 pamphlet, Conservation of Our Wild Birds, that a suet filling should be placed inside a wire-mesh sandwich to prevent larger animals or greedy birds from carrying it away in large morsels.
Backyard bird-feeding stories by readers of the Massachusetts Audubon Society Bulletin began appearing between 1917 and 1921 and referred to suet baskets, boxes, cages, holders, and containers. The first suet feeder ad in the Bulletin appeared in the
December 1921 issue. Made by the Crescent Company, also called Birdsville, in New Jersey, the Have a Heart feeder combined a suet holder and grain feeder.
Shortly thereafter, Winthrop Packard, also from Massachusetts, offered a fifty-cent suet container. The feeder host who purchased one could “fill in the holder, snap the lid down and hang it on a nail or a twig.”
Plastic or vinyl-coated square wire cages of varying meshes seem to have become the default suet feeder standard. Basic wire-mesh feeders grew out of favor over concern that bird tongues or even eyes might stick to the bare metal in cold weather. In the Audubon Guide to Attracting Birds (1941), contributor Roger Tory Peterson wrote about using a “simple open-faced wooden container with a network of thin insulated wire that keeps squirrels and jays at bay.”
He also described how to make a squirrel-proof suet stick. Drill several large holes into a three-foot long fat stick or small log. Fill the holes with suet and suspend the feeder by wire from a branch. Other often-mentioned homemade suet feeders are large cloth mesh or crocheted fruit and onion bags, meat or fish cans, coconut shells, and pine cones whose crevices are filled with melted suet.
While the basic design of contemporary suet feeders remains the same, there is much more convenience and variety today. A typical suet basket holds a twelve-ounce suet cake, an item found not only at bird-feeding specialty shops but also in the pet food aisles of many grocery stores. All sorts of nomess, no-fuss commercially made suet balls, blocks, cakes, and plugs are sized to fit their companion feeders just right. For example, one company, Pine Tree Farms, makes a line of twelve-ounce cylinder-shaped suet plugs that snugly fill the ports of its own Log Jammer Feeder.
Some modern suet feeders come with extra wood at the base to help woodpeckers use their tails for balance; upside down suet feeders deter European Starlings; double-decker and extra-large feeders mean fewer refueling trips. Many are made from eco-friendly materials. Some come roofed, baffled, and even pole-mounted.
In the twenty-first century, suet is many things to many people, many birds, and many retail companies. Ultimately, though, it is just fat that has become a bird-feeding staple. In its original, raw, kettle-simmering form it may even help foster future nostalgia. As Richard Mallery wrote in Dick E. Bird’s Birdfeeding 101, “Nothing gives a home that bird-feeding feeling like the smell of beef kidney suet on the stove.”
More from Feeding Wild Birds in America:
• Four-Season Bird Feeding
This excerpt was used with permission from Feeding Wild Birds in America, by Paul J. Baicich, Margaret A. Barker, and Carrol L. Henderson, published by Texas A&M University Press, © 2015.